Who will care for the caregivers? For the folks on the frontline who witness the impact that chronic exposure to violence has on the lives of those whom we serve? This is the question posed by the Philadelphia documentary, Portraits of Professional Caregivers: Their Passion, Their Pain, created by Vic Compher, Rodney Whittenberg and Tim Fryett. They use a combination of interviews with child welfare workers, therapists, firemen, police and others interspersed with commentary by experts in the field to demonstrate the concepts of secondary or vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue…along with compassion satisfaction.
UrbanPromise has a long-standing practice of holding all-staff meetings the first Friday afternoon of every month. Schools close early and staff from every department: after-school programs, schools, experiential learning, interns, international Fellows, food services, development team, and administration…gather to form community and remind ourselves why we do what we do. This past Friday I was invited to share this documentary, courtesy of the Camden Healing10 collaboration, in lieu of our usual format.
Frankly I wasn’t sure at all how this heavy (one staff member called it “brutal”) documentary would play with our staff. While I believe it’s important for every community member at UrbanPromise to be trauma-sensitive, not everyone is on the front line. And our after-school program staff are struggling right now with several personal losses – was it fair to expose them to even more sadness? I knew the documentary ended on a bright, hopeful note but boy, those first forty-five minutes are intense.
I prefaced the film by inviting people to care for themselves as they needed to while watching it, then sat down. You didn’t want to feel my shoulders while we were watching. And yet watch we did, then broke out by department to debrief with questions that I gave each of the directors. When we came back together, each group shared insights, which included the need to watch out for each other and to speak up when we see a colleague struggling. A few thanked me personally for giving them new language for personal experience. And I thought that was the end of it. Until the following Wednesday afternoon.
“Becky, I have to thank you for that film last Friday,” Chef Shawn said as he greeted me on the back porch of the Peace House. Chef Shawn is leading our new catering enterprise, UrbanChefs. He is a phenomenal cook, is gregarious and funny, and is also teaching our newest cooking class for after-school kids. “I have to tell you; I have been praying for a sign on whether or not this job is right for me. Watching that film gave me my answer. You see, in my last job I prided myself on the fact that I trained 650 culinary students at Respond! But 37 of them have died. I have pictures of every one of them. And four more are now in prison for life. They all did so well when they were with me…I didn’t know what to call what I was feeling about losing them. But now I know that it is secondary trauma. I carry them with me.” I didn’t have words at first to respond to this, so moved was I, and honored by his sharing. I thanked him, and he thanked me again, this time for the opportunity to teach the cooking class. “That’s the other sign that I received last week – I love to teach and I haven’t had the chance since I started this job!” he said with a smile.
I had ended the all-staff meeting with a quote from Sister Helen Cole, a saint who works in Camden with families who have lost someone to homicide. When I asked her how she managed not to burn out, she answered, “Align yourself with goodness! Good food, good music, good people, good wine!” This cooking class was goodness for Chef Shawn. And I experienced a great deal of compassion satisfaction – and humility – as a conduit for God’s message to him.